Episode 123: A Material Change

In the 1300s, the scribes of England began a gradual shift from the use of animal hides like parchment to a new material made from plant fibers. That new writing material was paper. In this episode, we explore the history of paper, and we examine the fundamental connection between texts and textiles.


17 thoughts on “Episode 123: A Material Change

  1. Some very high end papers are still made from cloth. For example US currency is made out of a blend of linen and cotton cloths to give it its distinct feel. That’s why you can put money in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t fall apart like you would see with a regular piece of paper.

  2. Another interesting listen, keep it up.

    In welsh paper is papur, book is llyvir from roman latin, llyvrgell is library (book cell/container/unit).

    Just a note, at the end when you mentioned upcoming literary sources, your pronunciation of Sir Gawain might possibly need revising slightly.
    It is traditionally said
    ‘Guh-Wayne’ or ‘Gah-Wayne’ (or G’Wayne)
    I’m welsh so any other celtic names, drop me an email if it might help or save you time at all.

    The county of Dyfed is ‘Duh-ved’ or ‘duhv’-ved’ in stronger accent) (1f=v sound, ff=f)
    Owain Glyndwr should sound like your bar tab, english readers mis-say it as Owen, (its owe-wine) as both are variants today.
    Emphasis is usually on the middle syllable (or first if only 2) in welsh, except for many compound words like glynDWR (glin-Doooorh).

    • Thanks for the note. With respect to the pronunciation of “Gawain,” that issue may be more complicated that you imagine. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion about the way that name should be pronounced – with about 6 different pronunciations being in popular use. I realize that the name is a Welsh name and that the modern pronunciation in Wales is as you suggest. However, the spelling of the name suggests that it was pronounced differently in Middle English. The “ai” letter combination represented the modern ‘long I’ sound in Middle English. So using a strict application of Middle English morphology and phonology, the name would have been pronounced something like /GAH-wine/ at the time the poem was composed in Middle English. “Gawain” is also the origin of the modern name “Gavin” which suggests that the diphthong in the second syllable was shortened over time. That’s why I usually pronounce it as /GAH-win/. But that is really just a guess on my part. In the past, I have actually tried to find a definitive answer as to the Middle English pronunciation, but my research revealed differences of opinion even among the experts. Anyway, that’s why I have used that particular pronunciation in the podcast.

    • Yes, as I noted is the episode, the word “technology” is “closely related” to the words “text” and “textile.” All three words are derived from the same Indo-European root word *teks. According to the OED, the word “technology” was first attested in the year 1612. When I discuss related words in the podcast, I will typically mention the date a word was first attested if it is contemporary to the time period covered by the episode. If I don’t mention the date the word was first attested, it usually means that it was first attested at a later date (as is the case with the word “technology” in this episode).

  3. Hi,
    Thank you for another interesting episode!
    If anyone finds the history of paper and print interesting, I whole heartedly recommend the paper museum in Basel. It fun and interesting for kids and adults alike. We went for my kids, but I enjoyed it just as much. It brings to life a lot of what was discussed in this episode.

    BTW – Bibliothek is also German for library. The podcast is even more interesting if one knows some German. Especially the early episodes.
    Thanks again for the informing listen! I recommend your podcast a lot.

    • Cool recommendation! I’ll have to make a trip to Switzerland.

      As far as German’s Bibliothek goes, it follows suit with pretty much all of the continental words for library, since they all came from the scholastic tradition: principally Latin bibliothēca, eventually from Ancient Greek βιβιοθήκη (bibliothḗkē).

  4. Found this very interesting, thanks. We don’t typically think about how technological changes were just as staggering centuries ago as they are now.

  5. One of my favorite episodes! You’re right – the paper-related technologies mentioned here deserve much more credit than they get in overview courses of world history. I’m amazed at the level of thorough research and detail you put into the podcast – thank you!

  6. Pingback: (relatively) recent making | Fibres of Being

  7. Want to run it by you guys.

    Nowadays we say “gross” for things we don’t like, and “fine” for the opposite. Have both of them come to us from the feel of the textile? Like, the size of the fiber used?

    • It’s an interesting question. I don’t think that the modern senses of “gross” and “fine” come directly from the texture of cloth, but it is true that those terms could once be applied to types of cloth and today they can be applied as general terms of approval or disapproval. Both words have always had very broad meanings with “gross” evolving from a sense of ‘thick or coarse’ to a modern sense of ‘dull, stupid or vulgar,’ and “fine” evolving from a sense of ‘finished or highest quality’ to a sense of ‘pure or unblemished’ and then a sense of approval. While the earlier senses could be applied to cloth, they also had much broader applications.

  8. Around the 11m55s mark “We can ‘weave words’ and ‘spin a yarn’ when we tell a story”
    Don’t ignore Looming Deadlines!

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